Trigger warning: this post discusses stillbirth, miscarriage and neo-natal death.
I offended someone today, by clicking ‘like’ on a photo on Facebook.
I hate offending people, and in many ways I understand her point of view. The picture, you see, was of a dead baby. But let me explain why I’d press ‘like’ all over again.
I won’t reproduce the photo here; it isn’t mine to share. It showed a tiny baby, wrapped up in blanket. The poor little thing hadn’t survived. I was shocked when I saw it; my first response was to be angry with the person who had put it in my timeline.
But then I read the text that accompanied it. It was, in essence, a plea from the mother for us all to look at her baby, to acknowledge it, because this photo was all she had to share.
I suddenly realised that I was horrified by the image, not because it was disgusting, but because I was afraid. That picture holds every parent’s fear; every dark thought that makes you stumble out of bed in the middle of the night to check on a tiny form in a nearby cot; every anxious trip to the GP during pregnancy.
And then I thought about the friends of mine who had lost babies before they were born. I thought about how devastating it must be to be the mother of an invisible child, invested with all the same desires and hopes as our living children. These mothers are ghost-mothers, not allowed to talk about their children (or share the only photos they have of them) because they make us too afraid.
I was reminded of my great-auntie Betty (whose name I stole when I started this blog). She was the mother of two boys, one of whom was born with ‘water on the brain’ as it was termed at the time. Colin had severe learning difficulties and looked ‘different’ too.
When he was born, Betty was told that he wouldn’t survive into his teens, and to put him in a home. She refused, and brought him up with huge affection and tenderness. He lived well into his seventies, and was an adored fixture in our family who loved listening to records, eating ready-salted crisps, and handing out the sloppiest kisses imaginable.
The reason I’m mentioning Colin is that lots of people didn’t want to look at him either; many family members stayed away, saying that he was frightening or potentially violent. He was neither, and through modern eyes those views are shocking to most people.
I want to suggest that there’s a parallel here, and an opportunity for us to catch up. Those lucky ones of us who have healthy children get to post them on Facebook to attract an endless stream of admiration; others have to hide away their children because we deem them too horrible for us to contemplate.
I looked again at the picture of the dead baby, and I saw a beautiful little face, deep asleep. There was nothing ugly there; just a sense of sadness, the boiling fear that anything should befall my own son and the profound gratitude that I hadn’t had to cope with this tragedy.
Today is Halloween; death and disability are all part of the language of horror. I am asking that we also acknowledge that they’re part of normal life. The thought of terrible things happening to our own children are unbearable; but they happen, in real life, to real people. We need to bear witness to their experiences, too.
The charity Sands is a great source of support for anyone who has been affected by these issues.